The United States Geological Survey estimates that about 283 million Americans rely on public systems as their primary source of clean water.
That’s almost 90% of the country that depends on local municipalities to acquire, treat, and deliver clean water to their homes.
If these public water systems were to fail, many people would be forced to explore other means of acquiring and treating water to fulfill their basic needs.
This is why it is important to be knowledgeable of alternative water sources should an unexpected disaster occur.
Furthermore, water scarcity is increasingly affecting not only developing nations but first-world nations as well. Securing an alternative water plan may hedge your household against the realities of the global freshwater crisis.
This article will explore several of the most practical off-grid water systems that can realistically be applied in order to maintain basic water needs.
This article will cover:
- The reality of the global freshwater crisis
- Best off-grid water systems
- Surface Water
- Rainwater harvesting
- Atmospheric water generation
- Water storage
The Truth About Water Scarcity
It isn’t extremely difficult for those of us in western developed nations to overlook the many conveniences our technological advances have blessed us with. Our public water systems are relied upon heavily in almost all aspects of our daily lives and yet we’d hardly think twice about where the water comes from whenever we flip the tap.
And while it may seem a foreign thought to have concern over the integrity of our water supply here in the states, the truth is that water scarcity and drought are worldwide affairs.
While western developed nations haven’t experienced the brunt of the global water crisis as have more water-stressed regions such as East Africa and India, failure to address clear signs may bring a much drier future.
The Global Freshwater Crisis
While 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, only a very small portion of it is actually drinkable. That is, less than 4% is actually fresh—the rest in saltwater.
Furthermore, most of the drinkable water is inaccessible to humans, either locked up in glaciers or hidden far too deep within the earth’s crust. The clean water that is available to us exists in streams and rivers or in groundwater, accessible via water wells.
Putting the world’s clean water supply into perspective helps us better understand the instability of our water systems.
The truth is that irresponsible industrial practices are furthering the water crisis through freshwater contamination and excessive groundwater depletion.
Contaminating the freshwater supply with harmful chemicals further reduces its availability. Excessive pumping of groundwater continuously reduces its supply and lends to drought, often requiring decades for aquifers to be replenished.
By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will experience what is known as water stress—that is, when the demand for water exceeds the available amount.
The nature of political water conflict
One of the main problems that water scarcity directly leads to is conflict. Water conflict arises when two people groups compete over a water source that transcends national or political boundaries.
When the water supply becomes scarce, the courses of action taken to secure a nation's needs often involve violence. There are numerous records of water conflicts occurring throughout the history of the world and a global freshwater crisis may only cause more tension.
The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which supply water to both Turkey and Iraq, have been a point of contention between the two regions.
Afghan and Iranian farmers have seen conflict over the Helman River Basin, a water source that both people groups depend on for agricultural reasons.
According to a study by Innovative Energy and Research, potential water conflict in North America can arise due to the shared usage of the Columbia and Colorado Rivers.
While water conflict isn't yet an overwhelming problem in North America as it is in the Middle East, a continued spread of the global freshwater crisis may foreshadow some potential complications.
Securing our future
Another problem that water scarcity leads to is insecurity in our current water systems. Though North America may still be far better off than many water-stressed regions around the world, it is increasingly becoming a wise practice to explore other alternative water sources.
Having an understanding of how to secure alternative water sources provides a sense of freedom and confidence should the integrity of the current water system weaken. Many people will find the idea of exploring off-grid water systems unnecessary, especially when the current water system is functioning. But this idea is one of foresight. It's knowledge you hope you'll never have to use.
But the reality is, at this trajectory, the problems the global freshwater crisis has been imposing on certain parts of the world might no longer be confined there.
The following are the most practical alternative water sources available.
Best Off-Grid Water Systems
Most Americans rely on some sort of public water service as their main source of water—typically city water or some local municipal service. Some live in remote areas where a private or community well is the main source that provides residents with clean water.
The purpose of this section is to provide alternative water sources should the primary water system become unavailable, and to help establish legitimate off-grid water systems for those who seek a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
Not all of these sources will be available to everyone as many are dependent on factors such as climate and topography. But having the knowledge of how these systems work will open up options for water availability should the need arise.
The following is an overview of the 5 most practical off-grid water systems. Be sure to check out our more comprehensive articles on each topic by clicking on the links provided.
Groundwater / Private Well
While groundwater makes up only 1.6% of the total water volume on earth, it accounts for 99% of the drinkable water. In other words, almost all of the water that humans consume comes from beneath our feet and has remained this way throughout history.
Groundwater exists in what are known as aquifers—large, porous, underground rock formations through which water flows freely. Aquifers can vary greatly in size and depth—some can be accessed within several feet of the ground level while others are still hundreds of feet below.
How do I use groundwater as a reliable water source?
Groundwater is accessed via a well. Wells can be hand dug or commercially drilled depending on the depth of the aquifer.
Many rural homes and cabins in remote, off-grid locations rely on wells as their primary source of clean water. Owning a home that uses a well can place you miles ahead of many others in terms of water security.
That’s because a private well system is entirely managed by the homeowner and not a municipal service as is the case with city water systems. Aside from the costs of the initial drilling and equipment, groundwater is essentially free to use.
Components of a water well system
A typical well system consists of a pump and a pressure tank. The pump is responsible for lifting water from the aquifer, up through the well, and into the home’s water system. The deeper the well, the higher the water must be lifted, and therefore, the harder the pump must work. Selecting the right sized pump is crucial in ensuring a properly working well system.
The water is stored in a pressure tank which is accessed whenever a water fixture is turned on. From here, pressurized water is distributed throughout the entire home.
A proper filtration system is also necessary for well systems as groundwater can often harbor contaminants. Physical components such as sand and silt will need to be pre-filtered with a sediment filter. Other contaminants such as iron and water hardness can be managed with a water softener or iron filter.
Accessing a well
The limiting factor with groundwater usage is that it is dependent on whether the land exists above an aquifer, and whether the aquifer is shallow enough to drill into.
When purchasing a new home, the seller will provide information on whether the home is currently on a well or not. If it currently uses a well, then the hard work has been done and will only require maintenance.
Building a new home in a rural area will require some research into the terrain and whether aquifers can be accessed. The USGS provides useful information on regional groundwater availability. One would also have to inquire about groundwater laws with the local agency.
Can you drill your own well?
Groundwater laws are mostly handled at the state level and may have specific regulations between counties.
When hiring a drilling company to drill and install a new well on your property, all of the legal filings required by the government are usually managed by the contractor. There are specific regulations that must be adhered to and most agencies will only allow a licensed well driller to perform these tasks.
But there are some states and counties that allow homeowners to dig and install their own hand pump via a driven-point well.
A driven-point well, also known as a sand-point well, is a small diameter (2") steel pipe with a screen and heavy point at the end. The entire pipe is manually driven through the ground and into a shallow aquifer either by hammering or by twisting with a post driver.
Once fully driven in the aquifer, the screen at the bottom will filter out debris while allowing water to pass up through the pipe. A hand pump is usually installed at the top of the well where water can be pumped manually whenever needed.
Because sand-point wells are designed for shallow groundwater, it is important to research the depth of the water table in your area before attempting to install a sand-point well.
Not all states permit the manual installation of a sand-point well by the homeowner. Check out our article on whether it's legal to install a well on your property.
For those interested in installing a sand-point well on your property, Lehman's Hardware has a great one in stock.
Lehman's Hardware also stocks an excellent cast-iron hand pump for shallow wells:
Surface Water: Lake, River, Stream
Of all the fresh water on earth, 1.2% of it exists as surface water. Surface water refers to lakes, rivers, streams, and any body of fresh water that exists on the earth’s surface.
Surface water can be utilized as a source of clean water via a pump. With the proper setup, a property owner can utilize an adjacent body of water as a means for clean water for an off-grid home or cabin.
How to pump surface water
The most challenging factor in pumping water from a lake or river is in managing the distance between the home and the water source. The further the water must travel from the source to the destination and the greater the elevation between them, the harder the pump must work in order to move the water over that distance.
Similar to well water pumping, a pump must be sized properly in order to ensure the correct amount of pressure is provided in relation to the amount of gravity it has to overcome.
Pump sizing is a detailed science and involves measuring the exact distance between the water source and the output.
Similar to a well system, a surface water system may require a pressure tank to store the water that has been pumped from the source. From the tank, pressurized water is distributed to any area of the home that has a water fixture.
For a more comprehensive walkthrough, check out our guide on how to pump water from a lake or river.
Surface water laws
Water rights are generally managed at the state level, so one would have to inquire about their state’s legislation for details on specific water laws.
In general, most states follow a law doctrine known as “reasonable use” which means that water can legally be used if applied reasonably. Of course, the word “reasonable” can come into subjection especially when bodies of water cross multiple property lines.
When purchasing a new property, inquire about the details of the water rights if a body of water is present. Sometimes, water rights can apply separately from land rights.
Rainwater harvesting can be a very lucrative means for collecting water, especially in regions where rainfall is heavy.
In fact, on a 1,000 square-foot rooftop, about 550 gallons of water can be collected for every inch of rainfall.
Even in drier areas, the occasional rain can supplement a home’s water supply with outdoor gardening needs. In wetter areas, rainwater harvesting can be a significant water source.
With the correct setup, a rainwater harvesting system can be collected, pumped, filtered, and distributed to the home for all its basic water needs.
Components of a rainwater harvesting system
The first component of a rainwater harvesting system is the catchment area—a large flat surface, slightly angled downward to allow gravity to transport the rainfall into a conveyance channel.
A home’s rooftop is a perfect catchment system for rain as it likely has rain gutters already installed, channeling the rainfall through the downspout.
The next main component of the rainwater system is the collection area, typically a plastic rain barrel. Rain barrels vary greatly in size—smaller rain barrels usually exist in 55-gallon sizes while larger, more commercial rain barrels can reach 2,000 gallons and beyond.
A rain barrel pump can be installed to transport water from the collection area to its intended destination. Rainwater can immediately be used for various outdoor purposes such as gardening and washing, without the need to purify the water.
If the rainwater is intended for indoor use such as drinking, bathing, and cooking, a proper purification system will be necessary as rainfall can often collect harmful pathogens during its travel from the catchment area to the rain barrel.
Check out our comprehensive guide on how to filter rainwater.
Check out the complete system from Tank Depot:
Whether or not collecting rainwater has any legal restrictions is handled on the state level. Currently, there are no states that restrict rainwater harvesting completely, but some states do have limited regulations in terms of volume, means of collection, and intended use.
The majority of states, however, have no regulations on private rainwater harvesting at all, some states even provide incentives and tax rebates for doing so.
Check out our detailed guide on rainwater harvesting laws for each state.
Atmospheric Water Generation
Atmospheric water generation is the process of using technology to gather moisture in the atmosphere in order to produce adequate amounts of clean water.
This process involves the use of special devices and can be accomplished through several different methods.
The main advantage to atmospheric water generators is that they don’t require an actual water source to operate. Meaning, you can essentially create water out of thin air as long as there’s moisture in the atmosphere. They also require little to no additional filtration since the water produced is already clean.
Atmospheric water generators
Atmospheric water generators (AWGs) are devices that use the process of condensation to collect moisture in the atmosphere, turning it into clean drinkable water.
By using a system of air filters and heating devices, moisture is gathered into a collection chamber over time. Clean water can then be dispensed from the spout.
The main disadvantage to atmospheric water generators is that they generally take some time to produce an adequate amount of water. They also require a steady flow of electricity for power.
WaterGen atmospheric generators can produce up to 30 liters per day.
Dehumidifiers work similarly to atmospheric water generators but with an entirely different end purpose. While AWGs are designed specifically to produce water, dehumidifiers are designed to remove humidity in the atmosphere. Both operate using the same design process and therefore both devices will produce water.
Because the main purpose of dehumidifiers is to remove humidity, their water-generating capability is usually less productive than with AWGs. However, they do generate water quite well if even as a secondary function.
Humidifiers are also generally smaller and more affordable than AWGs.
Honeywell makes a great 70-pint dehumidifier, purchasable from Sylvane.com.
Solar water generators
Solar water generators use the heat from the sun to purify water and generate condensation.
The Source Hydropanel is a solar water generator that uses solar power to operate the system, eliminating the need for electricity. By utilizing the sun combined with humidity in the atmosphere, these panels can generate clean water in even the driest of climates.
At a rate of 2-5 liters per day, the Source Hydropanels can supplement a water system with clean water for consumption.
Dew harvesting / fog collection
Dew harvesting and fog collection are methods of atmospheric generation that involve taking advantage of highly damp regions during early morning hours.
As dew and fog settle, nets can be used to collect droplets of water for harvesting. While small amounts of dew may not seem adequate enough for water harvesting, using large enough nets and doing so on a daily basis can have a significant impact on water collection.
Desalination is the process of removing salt from seawater, rendering it drinkable. Because seawater is the most abundant source of water on earth, it is a beneficial endeavor to improve upon technology that allows us to filter it more efficiently.
While many desalination methods haven’t quite overcome the barrier of energy efficiency, some methods show promise. Reverse osmosis continues to be a leading method for large-scale desalination.
As desalination technology advances, we can expect to see more smaller-scale desalination methods and even portable desalination devices suitable for off-grid living.
Water Purification Methods
An off-grid water system won’t be of any consumable use unless a proper purification system is in place.
While there are various different types of water purification methods available, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, the best type for your application will be dependent on the water source available.
Water may contain a large variety of contaminants and each purification method will have varying degrees of effectiveness in eliminating them from the water supply.
For example, rainwater usually contains high levels of bacteria and other harmful pathogens and will therefore require a UV purification to kill of the microorganisms. Groundwater tends to be high in sand and silt and therefore requires a strong sediment pre-filter.
We’ll address the different purification methods and what they’re most useful for.
Reverse osmosis, or RO, is the process of purifying water at a molecular level by passing H20 molecules through a very fine membrane. The end result is that pure H20 ends up on one side of the membrane while all the contaminants get left behind on the other side.
RO systems are great for potentially contaminated water sources such as rainwater or river water. Rainwater tends to drag bacteria from bird droppings on rooftops and rivers tend to harbor harmful protozoa such as Giardia, typically from beaver excrement.
It is extremely important therefore to ensure completely clean water when utilizing these sources, and reverse osmosis will very well take care of the problem.
RO systems work well with rainwater harvesting, groundwater, and surface water applications. Check out our guide on reverse osmosis systems for a complete understanding.
Activated Carbon Filtration
Activated carbon filtration involves the usage of densely packed carbon particles to collect and trap contaminants as they pass through. Carbon contains very fine pores capable of attracting harmful chemicals and heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals.
When arranged into cartridge form, these carbon filters are a very effective method for water filtration as they can be used many times over before requiring replacement. They are the most common form of water filtration—used in residential, commercial, and outdoor applications.
A whole-house activated carbon filter will work great for an off-grid water system as it will be able to handle large volumes of water before requiring filter replacement.
Activated carbon filters work best with groundwater and surface water applications.
Ultraviolet (UV) purification is the most effective means for killing pathogens as it can render cell bodies and viruses dead. This makes UV purification very effective for water sources with harmful microorganisms, as in rainwater.
The disadvantage to UV purification systems is that they will not remove debris particles from the water. Therefore, an additional sediment or carbon filter may be necessary.
While securing a water source is the most important element of an off-grid water system, a water storage system can also be a necessary component.
In case the primary source of water experiences a halt in its function, it will be helpful to have extra sources of water stored away for immediate use.
The CDC recommends having at least 2 weeks-worth of stored water in case of unexpected emergency.
The best type of containers for long term water storage are large, opaque, polyethylene plastic containers. Sizes may vary, but the most common type are the blue 55-gallon upright barrels.
Storage containers should be kept in a dark, dry area and rotated periodically to maintain freshness.
When combined with an off-grid water system, storage containers can add an extra level of water security in case of unexpected emergency.
Check out our guide on water storage containers.
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